The importance of being earnest—how Water for People is paving the way for honest donor conversations

By Katy Snyder, JVA Consulting

What would you say if someone told you the best way to get and keep donors is to tell them what is not working about your programs? That’s precisely what a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article says that Denver-based nonprofit, Water for People, is doing.

I first learned about Water for People a few years back through working with a local nonprofit that builds schools in Sudan, Project Education Sudan (PES). Many of us working with PES were faced with the same question that all involved in development work must ask: What good is education if people are too thirsty/hungry/sick to attend or fully participate? Like other organizations, we began to provide a water well and partnered with other organizations to install latrines at the schools that PES built, understanding that they were needed for schools to function. And we were not alone when we found that installing water and sanitation was half the battle—maintaining and fixing the wells and latrines opened up a whole other can of worms. While PES continues to come up with creative solutions to the problem of maintenance and repairs of its latrines and wells, other nonprofits have not—the Chronicle article cites estimates of up to 50,000 broken water points in Africa and up to $360 million that has gone to waste on water and sanitation projects that have been abandoned or remain unfixed. Far from providing solutions, some well-intentioned projects have added to pollution and other problems in the countries they have tried to help.

Water for People took note of this problem and is now redoubling its efforts to ensure that the wells and other sanitation measures it and other nonprofits install across the world are working properly and bringing about lasting change—and they’re telling their donors about both the good and the bad.  Quoted in the Chronicle article, Ned Breslin, Water for People’s executive director, stresses that telling donors about both good and the bad get them actively involved and acknowledges that donors “don’t just hand over money but care about this issue.” But Water for People isn’t just letting their donors know that their projects aren’t perfect—they are leveraging new donations to implement an innovative new technology called Flow, which uses technology to pinpoint water systems that aren’t working and quickly fix them.

As a grantwriter at JVA, I often find myself helping clients to work through reporting results to funders that don’t always measure up to initial estimates, or even thinking of creative ways to write goals and objectives that show lasting change rather than high-volume, rapid change. Admittedly, it isn’t always easy. Funders and donors are increasingly focused on return on investment, and cash-strapped nonprofits are being asked to do more with less.

While we all have to show at least nominal measurable results, and those pesky funders always ask us to hone in on objectives (wouldn’t it be nice if we just had to write goals?), it is important to look to your mission when you find yourself struggling to provide those big numbers and remember that it is why you exist. Take Water for People’s mission:

We work with people and partners to develop innovative and long-lasting solutions to the water, sanitation, and hygiene problems in the developing world. We strive to continually improve, to experiment with promising new ideas, and to leverage resources to multiply our impact.

Not only have they built the fact that long-lasting results are important to them into their mission, they acknowledge that they experiment with new ideas, precisely what they are doing as they experiment with new ways to monitor the wells that they install and with the new model they are advocating for reporting results to their funders.

By implementing this new approach and forcing funders to look beyond just the upfront numbers, Water for People might just be changing the conversation.

Tell us what you think. Does your nonprofit tell its donors about what’s not working? Would you consider it? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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1 Response to The importance of being earnest—how Water for People is paving the way for honest donor conversations

  1. Pingback: Water for People recognized as a top social entrepreneur and nonprofit | JVA's Nonprofit Street

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